For a the last few weeks, my social media has toggled between two poles: Death and baking. There has been an immense amount of death and dying, dear friends losing parents they could not even visit in a hospital; zoom funerals with only a handful of mourners as the wind whips past an open grave. I have all but given up on knowing what to say in response to this flattening of suffering and pain. I type “I’m sorry,” and “I’m so sorry.” The rest of the feed is given over to baking. People are doing some spectacular things with cannellini beans. This past week was the sourdough week for my people, it seems. I am almost as useless in my responses to the food posts, to those I type “yum.” Sometimes I can’t recall what I am doing and post my “I’m sorry”’s and my “yum”’s in inappropriate spaces.
I am aware that for some, the suffering borders on the unbearable. I am also aware that as much as anyone I know is suffering, someone else suffers more. Businesses are shuttered and layoffs loom and I have stopped even asking my boys when they last showered. Some days it seems that I answer my children with indiscriminate “I’m sorry”’s and “yum”’s as well. Yesterday, on a walk, my elder son asked if this is what it looks like when empires die, and neither “I’m sorry” nor “yum” seemed entirely fitting. I went with the former.
Most of the time, I think about the hubris that comes with believing you are in control of your health, your career, your family, and your words, until you see that pretty much all you can control is your words, and perhaps the broiler and what it does to the mozzarella. So many of my friends are trying to get through the juggle of daily life and the growing worry that this may not end in a few weeks, or even months, and what has rushed into the space where that hubris once lounged is sadness and speechlessness and a simply staggering amount of food photography. People are suffering, whether they are covering their faces to go to the grocery store or not. And while there is still free music and Shakespeare and Broadway, there is something about watching even that that feels like this is what it looks like when empires die.
The work now, it seems to me, is to make ourselves small enough to hold everyone else, and all of their fears and losses, while not disappearing altogether. Neither “yum” nor “I’m sorry” suffices to communicate that effort. I’ve been thinking a lot about face masks this week. The mask I wear when I assure my children that everything is going to be fine is invisible to them, but trust me, I can’t breathe through it any more than I can breathe through the cloth one I wear for shopping. It reminds me of the fact that so many of us have been hiding our true faces for years now, as children froze in detention and we chatted about it on cable news shows. And even now that we mindfully compose our faces into our zoom-shaped boxes, it’s still never quite clear who is holding it together and who is coming apart.
A few weeks ago, I believed that the way to get through this lonely and formless pandemic was to be bigger than we were, but now I worry that most of us will never fit back into our old skins, which sag around us and trail behind when we walk. So many good people are disappearing into themselves and we still don’t quite have language for it, and the poor substitute is the ever-flattening language of social media, which is not real life, but right now is what we have. Someone wise said that we are all on a bridge now, and nobody builds a home on a bridge. Something will come after this, although who knows what that will be. All we know is it’s not time to build just now. It’s time to listen. I’m starting to think that even as we grow quieter, and more inward, we should save up most of our words for then, hoard them and practice them, because they will be of service again at some point, on the other side of the bridge. For now, maybe “I’m sorry” and “yum” can capture the balance of what is.